This morning, polls opened in Ireland in one of the most hotly-anticipated elections in the history of the State. The coalition, while not a foregone conclusion, will likely have Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny at its head – a situation that seemed less likely some months ago.
Since 1923, all Irish governments have been led either by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, or their precursor parties. The division between the two parties is historical, rather than ideological, representing the anti- and pro-Treaty sides in the Irish Civil War. Both parties share a broadly centre-right set of policies. The Irish left is divided, with PES sister party Labour likely to become the junior coalition partner to Fine Gael. Sinn Féin is likely to increase its vote share, while the United Left Alliance could conceivably regain Socialist MEP Joe Higgins’ Dáil seat. The Greens are tainted by their association with Fianna Fáil in the last Government; their electoral fortunes look bleak. Furthermore, the already comparatively high number of independent representatives in the Dáil looks set to increase further as disillusionment with the two main parties kicks in.
But from last summer until quite recently, there was serious discussion of the ending of the ‘two-and-a-half-party’ system in Ireland, as the traditionally third-placed Labour stormed ahead in the polls, with its leader Eamon Gilmore the most popular choice for Taoiseach. For the first time, the Labour Party dared to consider the prospect of a Labour-led Government. Tellingly, this slogan has been quietly retired in recent weeks as the election campaign progresses. But what has caused the sudden rush back towards the more traditional Fine Gael?
I would argue that several factors have contributed to the decline of Labour’s poll rating in recent weeks. Firstly, this election is all about the economy. Labour wants to create jobs and stimulate investment, including renegotiating the country’s debt repayments, and may have fallen foul of the mistrust of left-wing parties on economic issues.
Secondly, it is commonly expected that the traditional voting behaviour where families still support FF or FG would break down as the generations move further away from Civil War divisions. However, Irish citizens abroad are unable to vote. Ballotbox.ie estimates that there are 3.1 million voters in Ireland, with a further 800,000 abroad who are disenfranchised. As young unemployed graduates emigrate, the progressive vote may be going with them.
Thirdly, Labour as a socially progressive party has been subject to dirty-tricks campaigning in recent weeks. Labour is the only party with a pro-choice policy in a country where abortion remains illegal. The Guardian reports negative campaigning against Labour from anti-abortion groups in recent weeks. Labour also supports holding a referendum on extending full marriage rights to gay couples – a divisive issue in often socially-conservative Ireland.
Fine Gael are unlikely to take the 83 seats needed to go it alone in Government today. The electoral mathematics make a coalition with Labour the most likely, but not the only possibility. In a coalition dominated by Fine Gael, Labour will face an uphill struggle in Government.
Christine Quigley is Equalities Officer of the Young Fabians.